If it only took 13 years for “Encyclopedia” to mean “Wikipedia” for most people, so how can we redefine “church” to mean something more than Sunday mornings?
Wikipedia is now THE Encyclopedia
Think about how often you say “Go look it up.” Do you search online or do you crack open an Encyclopedia? What used to be the go-to place for knowledge found on wood paneled bookshelves is now a rarity: most people either google a question or look up a topic on Wikipedia, IMDB, or other topical sites.
Wikipedia has won. Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone actually consults, ever. In fact, it’s the first in history that everyone actually reads, rather than just having fond high school memories of. Wikipedia now defines what an “encyclopedia” is in popular conception.
In the span of 13 short years, Wikipedia now defines what an encyclopedia is. It has knowledge that is no less faulty than an Encyclopedia Britannica and has replaced what people think of. What used to be an everyday resources in many households in America has now been utterly displaced by a free, always available online resource–for better or for worse.
Hacking the word “Church”
It’s incredible how a commonplace idea (Encyclopedia: a tome of knowledge in every home written by experts) was replaced whole-hog by a new idea (Wikipedia: a site of limitless knowledge written by amateurs and experts alike) in a very short amount of time.
The story of Wikipedia gives me hope for the church today.
It reminds me that it is possible within a decade or two to completely change what people think of when they think of a word. And the term I want to redefine–to hack, to make new–is Church. And it’s possible within half of a generation if we get the right combination of factors together.
Because I believe that Wikipedia did two major things to revolutionize its industry…and both of these, the Church can do as well.
Church can be a People, Not a Place
First, Wikipedia freed knowledge without diminishing knowledge’s importance. The original selling point for encyclopedias was education. An encyclopedia salesman would target people with boats and basketball goals in their front yards and talk to the folks about using their disposable income for their child’s education, not just entertainment. That used to work fine before Wikipedia. Suddenly, equally verifiable knowledge was a search term away, with the added bonus of being always up-to-date, not just at publishing date. Wikipedia took the education selling point away from encyclopedias and turned it into convenience.
Likewise, one of the “selling points” for the church was education and inspiration. People would come for inspiration and education on Sunday mornings, navigating the gauntlet of social conventions of dress, behavior, and conformity. That used to work fine. Nowadays, education and inspiration can be found online for free. The Bible in every translation can be read online. Historical christian documents are available online. Sermons (text, podcast, video) are a mouse click away. To get the education and inspiration, people don’t have to navigate social conventions anymore or wonder when the service time is or if they will sit in some old lady’s pew. The Internet has taken the education/inspiration away from Sunday worship and turned it into convenience.
For many, that is scary. Worship attendance is down, membership is down, insular politics and infighting drive new people away, and the idea of being “spiritual but not religious” is increasingly more attractive to the Internet age.
For me and many others, this is exciting. We get to take the crux, the hinge point of Christianity, out of the worship halls and into the world. Like the Protestants who replaced the Eucharistic Table in the center of the worship space with the Pulpit or the Bible, our new Church needs to move the center to outside of the community. Instead of devaluing worship as a time and place, we increase its value by making it active and engaged, embodied in the work we do, and offered when the work we do needs a refresher.
I want to be a part of a church defined by what it accomplishes outside of the church buildings. If in 13 years, people think of Church as a people and not a place, then we’ve won.
Church can be FOR equality, not against it
Second, Wikipedia gave the same worth to the expert AND to the armchair fanatic AND to the girl who likes to edit grammar. The creation of knowledge, the accumulation and curation of knowledge, and the clear presentation of knowledge were all given equal value. They worked as a team asynchronously, and it was a rarity if they knew each other. And equally important was the reader at 3am who corrected a typo, added a footnote, or wrote an entire entry on a niche topic. To a world where people were valued from the top-down, a bottom-up equal valuation of human ability was transformative.
Sadly, the church has had a rough go with equality and the human condition. Often at the forefront of denying rights of women, sexual minorities, immigrants, and basic human rights of slaves and the poor, the Church has not been known to promote equality. Even today’s culture wars over LGBT persons are about some humans not being as equal as others. With the ghettoizing of society into ideologically similar segments, change seems further and further on the horizon.
But there is a redefining of terms on the horizon. Transformation is taking place from the bottom-up: from individuals befriending LGBT persons to churches becoming open and affirming, to regions and entire denominations believing that being LGBT is part of the human condition. In the past half-century, incredible work has been done on missiology and the way how our narratives, theologies, and approaches value the world beyond the West and the United States in particular.
To value people from the bottom-up is to repent of our past and put new wine into new wineskins for the future. I get really excited about this because this is absolutely fulfilling work. We get to reinvigorate the idea of the priesthood of all believers–indeed, we add in the prophethood of all believers. We get to read stories of women, Africans, Asian-Americans, Latin Americans, and Queer folks and better see them as human and like ourselves (no matter our privilege). We get to empower people to not wait for their clergy to do something–they can do it. I believe through immersion and sharing experience alongside one another–just like Wikipedians–that we can repent of our past and lay the groundwork for a just society in the future.
We want to not have to talk about equality anymore and to just have a just society where equality reigns. We want a society where the Church’s values are not unique but are commonly held. If in 13 years, people think of all humans as having equal value, then we’ve won.
What “Church” will be Church?
It took only 13 years for the word “encyclopedia” to mean “Wikipedia” and the values of Wikipedia (openness and equality) to become the values of the entire Internet itself.
Can it take only 13 years for the word “Church” to no longer refer to places of exclusion and harm, but instead refer to people of inclusion and grace? And can those values be infused in the communities around us so they are no longer uniquely Christian or churchy?
Or sound off: what would YOU want Church to be defined as in 13 years?
I believe it can. And the choice to make it real…is yours.